Here at Fantasy Author’s Handbook, I’ve recommended a number of books I think every fantasy author should have, but this week I’d like to go a bit deeper, or is it wider? Anyway, let me make this blanket recommendation:


Some of the advice you’ll get will be crap. Some of that crap will not be recognizable as crap until you’ve tried it. So try stuff. I’ve always told classes and seminars that if you ask a hundred working authors to describe their process you’ll get a minimum of one hundred different answers. There is no one way to do it. There may well not even be a million ways to do it. You get to find your process, just like I found mine, and hopefully you’ll keep fiddling with that process, again, just like I do.

In the meantime, you will be learning and practicing the craft of writing. And yes, you need to learn the craft of any art form before you can excel at the art.

I have a large library of books at home. Lots and lots and lots of books. Probably more books than I will ever get to read. I love books, and love to be surrounded by them. But I have a relatively small library of books about writing, editing, publishing—that occupies two shelves near my desk that I’ve set aside as my reference shelves.

Setting aside specific recommendations, or whether or not I actually use them all that often if ever, here are the books, in no particular order, that I keep at hand.

The Chicago Manual of Style, 16th Edition—is currently sitting on the floor to my left since I just had to look up the proper form for quoting the text of a sign (8.196) for a copy edit I’m working on.

From there we’ll go left-to-right, starting with the top shelf:

The program book from the PNWA Conference, July 25-28. I spoke at the conference and keep these as souvenirs.

Bellevue College Continuing Education catalog, Spring 2013. Ditto.

A Hair’s Breadth is actually a screenplay I wrote that’s still occasionally bouncing around Hollywood, now under the title Plucked. Why’s that there?

I have three old SFWA directories, from when I used to be a member of this dysfunctional family: 2001, 2002, and 2007. Those are pretty old. Why do I still have these?

A copy of Alternative fiction & poetry #5/6—the final issue. Hmm.

Just the cover case material for the hardcover edition of Annihilation. Matt Adelsperger gave this to me years ago and I just recently used it for “show and tell” in the Editing Fiction class I teach. It’s a neat little artifact.

Now we get into actual books:

Encyclopedia of Pulp Fiction Writers. I think I stole this from Peter Archer, so don’t tell him.

Bodian’s Publishing Desk Reference. This was helpful, but is from 1988 so now I pretty much just keep it for posterity’s sake.

Writer’s Digest Book’s Writer’s Encyclopedia, from 1983 . . . ditto, but there’s some good advice in here that’s still as valid as it was thirty years ago.

Nitty-Gritty Grammar by Edith H. Fine and Judith P. Josephson. Where did I get this? I don’t remember. But if you struggle with grammar it’s a pretty simple and fun basic overview.

Words Into Type.

A Dictionary of Modern American Usage.

Fowler’s Modern English Usage.

Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style.

Why I Write by George Orwell.

The F Word, which is more or less a dictionary/deconstruction of everyone’s favorite four-letter word.

The Law Enforcement Handbook, because no writer can avoid eventually writing about cops.

The Worst Case Scenario Survival Handbook, because no fantasy author can avoid eventually writing about someone lost in the woods.

Three fun little books from Wooden Books: Sun, Earth, Moon by Robin Heath, Sacred Geometry by Miranda Lundy, and Useful Mathematical & Physical Formulae by Matthew Watkins, because writers need to be smart (or at least know how to pretend to be).

US Army Survival Manual, in case the person lost in the woods is a soldier.

A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway—haven’t read it yet so no spoilers!

The Dad’s Book, which my son bought me and is full of useful how-tos.

ReWork by Jason Fried & David Heinemeier Hansson, which helped me launch Athans & Associates Creative Consulting.

The Anatomy of Buzz by Emanuel Risen, which is well out of date already having been published in 2002, but I made notes in it and it mentions Wizards of the Coast.

The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, because if I can’t take my own advice, who’s advise can I take?

Sci-Fi CoverHow to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy by Orson Scott Card, which I bought in 1990, so imagine my delight to be asked to contribute to a new edition, coming soon.

Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass.

Ebert’s Little Movie Glossary, signed by the author, Roger Ebert.

Interactive Storytelling by Andrew Glassner, which I have not gotten around to reading yet.

Writers on Comics Scriptwriting, which can get a little repetitious but is still highly recommended.

Million Dollar Consulting by Alan Weiss, which also helped me set up Athans & Associates Creative Consulting. This is the independent consultant’s bible.

Take Joy by Jane Yolen.

Payback by Margaret Atwood. Watched the documentary on Netflix last week. The book was better.

Necronomicon. I know its BS, but then, what isn’t?

The Best Baby Name Book in the Whole Wide World. In case you were wondering, Philip is of Greek origin and means “lover of horses.” One out of two ain’t bad.


Some old cover promo flats.

A fancy pad of paper from a Centipede development meeting that I’ve kept as a souvenir. Long story.

The program book for LACon IV, the 2006 World SF Convention.

A treatment for a TV series I created with some friends that never did get sold.

The Centipede Intellectual Property Bible—again, long story.

The program from the 2010 Steamcon.

The program from the 2011 Wondercon.

The program from the 2012 Emerald City Comicon.

The Wizards of the Coast Novels Style Guide—I still do freelance editing for them.

The 4th edition Forgotten Realms revision guide.

The Centipede Creative Development Bible.

The Complete Guide to Standard Script Formats—one of my college textbooks now made obsolete by Final Draft.

Another Centipede bible.

The Forgotten Realms Sembia series bible.

Last year’s Writer’s Digest Conference West program.

Then comes an old cardboard magazine holder full of everything I had published in various magazines. That’s a lot of stuff.

Two issues of Publishers Weekly in which I am mentioned.

What to Expect When You’re Expecting, because in between going to the police academy and getting lost in the woods, some characters get knocked up.

The Wordsworth Dictionary of Biography.

The Wordsworth Dictionary of Phrase & Fable.

The Highly Selective Dictionary for the Extraordinarily Literate by Eugene Ehrlich.

A mock-up of an imaginary novel in the Greyhawk: 2000 series that is a shining example of Matt Adelsperger’s masterful book design mojo, my king fu cover copy, and Wizards of the Coast’s aversion to risk.

Dictionary of Word Origins.

The Cowboy Dictionary. Yee. Ha.

The Oxford Dictionary of Foreign Words & Phrases.

Chronicle Books’ Dictionary of Symbols.

Roget’s Thesaurus.

The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations.

The New Oxford American Dictionary.

By now you’re probably asking, “What do these books contain that can’t be found on the internet?”

Answer: The joy of having them.

What’s on your shelf?


—Philip Athans


About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, ( is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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  1. Kameron says:

    Having just moved, I’m in the process of reconstructing my “shelf.” In the past I’ve had Strunk & White, Chicago Manual (14th ed, I think), American Heritage Dictionary, a thesaurus (Roget’s, I think). There are several titles on your list that I think I’ll add to mine. Writers on Comic Scripting is a definite. I have the first script of a mini-series done, and I’d love to see what I should revise for format, and what content that means adding or removing. The survival guides would be a good addition. I have some old Boy Scout handbooks, but I think having multiple perspectives would be interesting, especially the soldier. The Law Enforcement Handbook would be a big help with the comic series.

    Anyway, thanks for the ideas.

  2. Craig says:

    Turned into quite the scary question… after tabulating all the books on writing that I own, I realize I’m supporting a whole section of the industry.

    On the shelf:

    Elements of Style
    If You Want to Write – Brenda Ueland
    No Plot No Problem – The NaNoWriMo bible essentially
    Payback – Margaret Atwood
    On Writing – Stephen King
    Reading Like a Writer – Francine Prose
    The Complete Idiots Guide to Writing a Novel (…yep)
    A few 2nd addition AD&D books, like Creative Campaigning and Campaign Sourcebook and Catacombs Guide… use these for world building
    A few books on martial arts, mideival lifestyle/history and wilderness survival… reference kinda stuff

    On the Kindle:

    Sometimes the Magic Works – Terry Brooks
    2k to 10k: How to write faster, better and write more of what you love by Rachel Aaron
    The Metaphysics of the Novel – Ursula K Le Guin
    Write Great Fiction, Plot & Structure – James Scott Bell
    Writecraft: Short Stories and Flash Fiction – Rick Frazier
    The Writing of the Short Story – Lewis Worthing
    Let’s Write a Short Story! – Joe Bunting
    How NOT to Write Short Stories – John Howard Reid
    The War of Art – Steven Pressfield

    aaaaand last but not least:
    The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction – your book (yes it’s there!)

    I think I have an addiction here… most of these I’ve read several times 🙂

    • Craig says:

      Oh, and just last night I bought Save the Cat by Blake Snyder…

    • I am DELIGHTED to be in such great company, and I’ll check out some of these books, too. Which do you recommend in terms of writing better novels?

      • Craig says:

        Assuming you don’t want me to recommend your own book to you, I’ll highlight the following three:

        -2k to 10k by Rachel Aaron… had a lot of good advise on being an efficient writer.
        -Write Great Fiction: Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell… this one was invaluable for an amateur like me who’s never taken a writing course. I’ve gone through it several times and made detailed notes (which are also sitting on my shelf).
        -The War of Art by Steven Pressfield… not directly related to writing per se, but hugely valuable when it comes to motivation.

        I notice a funny thing looking back on my list… there’s a complete lack of decent books that give advice on writing short stories. The stores are bursting with books for aspiring novelists, but I remember combing amazon for hours looking for a good book on writing shorts. I found none… the books I did buy disappointed, with the exception of the one by Joe Bunting (but it only helped from a motivational stand point, not a hard technical advice standpoint). If you have any recommendations, I’m all ears 🙂

  3. AEHellar says:

    Thanks for the list. I have a couple of these and some I’ve considered but wasn’t sure about.

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